Welcome to my blog and my first post.
Where to start? I thought about explaining who I am and what I do, in the first paragraphs, but that’s covered in my about page. If you haven’t seen it, hop over and have a read. I don’t want to jump straight in with learning theory, or in-depth techniques, so I guess I’ll start at the start. Which is with the principles of the behaviour and training of animals.
I mostly work with horses, dogs and cats, but there is the occasional bird, sheep or other animal in the mix. The first thing to say is that I do not have a different ‘hat’ for each species, or have different values and ethics. The same guiding principles, which form my philosophy, are adhered to for every animal I work with. Obviously one species is not the same as another, but the underlying mechanisms are the same. The principles of how we learn, where in the brain motivational drive, emotions and responses are formed, how these are executed and reinforced are the same for all mammals. What is different is evolutionary development, natural environment, prey or predator role, and what is important for survival and living. All these things make up the unique perspective of how each species sees and interacts in the world. I account for differences in species by understanding what is called species specifics. This knowledge gives me the ability to adjust techniques and methods for the unique outlook on life each species has.
So, what you will find on my blog?
You will not find negative, aversive or punishment methods here. This is a strictly positive blog.
You will find up to date, scientifically proven positive reinforcement methods and techniques, theory and hands on knowledge, all applied with compassion and understanding, ensuring that high standards of emotional and physical welfare are always maintained.
Which leads me on to how important and often overlooked this concept, and one of my guiding principles, actually is;
To always leave an animal better off than when you started interacting with him.
By using positive reinforcement methods you have made a really good start, but there is more to it than just using the correct techniques, you have to look at how you apply them, how they affect the emotional state of the animal and what is actually reinforced.
When you teach and train you want the animal in question to be successful, but you also want to be successful yourself. You feel as though you know what you are doing if the animal does what you ask, and feel like a failure if he does not. It is immediately obvious that there are two aspects to every encounter with an animal. That of the animal, and that of the person handling him.
What does this actually mean? It means that you have to be able to separate your own emotions and drive for success from the situation, and not let it influence your judgement as to what is right at that particular time for the animal you are handling. And that is not easy. There will be many instances where my advice is to go and have a cup of tea, think about how to solve the particular problem, and start again when you have a plan.
Time out for tea is an invaluable training tool for you, although I would caution against too many biscuits accompanying that cup of tea! It gives you a different option to carrying on regardless, or quitting completely. First you have to train yourself to recognise when you are losing an objective viewpoint, and do so before you make training mistakes with the animal. Then you have to choose not to continue if you have lost your objectivity and are feeling frustrated, angry, or irritated. The decision is made to take the tea option; go have a cup of tea and think about why something didn’t work and what you can do differently to resolve the issue.
This takes us to the next concept, and guiding principle;
It is always the handler who needs to adjust if something is not working, not the animal.
You are teaching that animal, and if he doesn’t understand, then he doesn’t understand. Continuing to do the same thing will not necessarily improve this, you are likely to continue getting the same result. To achieve a different result you have to change something in how you present the data. It’s no good expecting the animal to spontaneously change his response to the same stimulus. It is up to you to make the change in order to facilitate a new response from the animal.
So does this mean that the animal is always right? And you are wrong? Aren’t you teaching him that whatever he does is fine, even if it is not what you asked for? How will his behaviour ever be controlled by working in this manner? Besides, he can give the correct behaviour, so he is just being difficult.
All valid questions.
So does this mean that the animal is always right? And you are wrong?
Yes, of course the animal is always right. How can he be otherwise when he is responding as his species, instincts and prior experiences tell him he should? He does not have the cognitive abilities of a person, he does not choose to do something out of spite, to annoy you, to be deliberately difficult, especially when he knows you don’t have time for it. An animal is not aware of these things, and not capable of such forethought.
As for you being wrong, you are not, you are fact finding. If what you do has not had the desired effect then something was not understood. What you thought was a sensible approach was not viewed as such by the animal, so use that information to adjust what you do. As much as it would be nice to get a great result every time, nobody does. You have to do all you can to enable the animal to respond and learn what you wish to teach him. After all, he would not choose to offer a different response to the one he already uses if there is no reason for him to do so. He would continue to respond from his individual perspective, within the parameters of his species.
Aren’t you teaching him that whatever he does is fine, even if it is not what you asked for?
Whatever he does is fine, again it comes down to cognitive awareness; as far as he is concerned he is behaving in an appropriate manner. Now that may be completely inappropriate in a human environment, but he doesn’t know that. Your job is to teach him how he should behave in the environment he is in. Also, you are only reinforcing that whatever he does is fine if you respond to it in a manner that reinforces the continuance of it. I’ll go into more detail in a future post, but behaviour can be reinforced by both positive reward based actions and negative aversive/ punishment based actions. It can also be stopped by both methods. You may view an action as a positive or negative action, but that is only true if the recipient interpreted it that way.
The result of behaviours you want usually gets a reward, so there is a positive reinforcement for the animal to repeat it in order to receive that reward again. The result of behaviours you don’t want usually gets a negative response or a punishment, which on the surface may seem like a deterrent for the animal, so he is less likely to give you that behaviour again. However, what we see as a deterrent is often perceived as confirmation that the behaviour was correct, which acts as reinforcement to continue it. So it is just as easy to reinforce that a horse nipping, or a dog growling was the desired response, as it is to reinforce that it was not the desired response.
How will his behaviour ever be controlled by working in this manner?
By taking things one step at a time, and not rushing to get to the end result. You are both learning to understand each others language and how to communicate effectively. This is no different to learning a foreign language, you would not start learning Italian and expect to hold an in depth conversation in Italy when you are still learning the language. It is the same with animals. You have to learn their language well enough to converse effectively, and once you’ve done that, you have to get to know the personality of who you are having that conversation with to get the best out of it.
It’s very quick and easy to hit your dog or horse to stop them doing something you don’t want them to do. And you will get a fairly immediate response to this method. But, whilst this has no place in my strictly positive blog, and neither does it have any place in modern teaching methods, it deserves the following explanation.
Whilst I do not consider aversive, negative and punishment based methods as teaching, technically they are, as the recipient will learn from them. However, what they learn does not produce the same results as positive reinforcement methods. The results of aversive methods are avoidance, suppression of behaviours and emotions, and a fear of the handler, which going back to my first guiding principal, most certainly does not leave an animal better off than when you started interacting with him.
You can never truly control another beings behaviour, and there is rather a misplaced perception that a person can achieve total control through these methods. The reality is that behaviour is subdued, and so perceived to be under control. In some situations, this is a time bomb waiting to happen, and quite honestly, I would not want to work with an animal under these conditions. They are far too unpredictable, there may be little or no warning that the emotions are about to explode, as they cannot continue to be subdued, and the result is likely to cause significant injury or even death to themselves or those around them. Of course there are other outcomes such as perceived helplessness, shutting down, and heightened reactivity. None of which are anywhere approaching acceptable standards of emotional welfare.
To me teaching means to improve awareness and understanding to achieve greater ability, confidence in oneself, and a sense of contentment. This reflects the first guiding principle in this post – to always leave an animal better off than when you started interacting with him. When done properly positive reinforcement methods do just that, whilst maintaining the highest emotional welfare standards.
By making the decision to adopt this philosophy, and work within the guiding principles will be the best thing you can do for yourself, and the animals you live or work with. You won’t have all the answers – does anyone? And there will be many necessary tea breaks as you start your journey, but there is support and advice, from me and those who have already embraced this way. We all have to start somewhere. Your might be taking the time to think about this philosophy, what it will mean to the animals you handle and how to begin applying it. You may be on your own positive journey already, and are progressing to using it in all interactions. Wherever you are, you are not alone, and there will always be help available and a way of finding a solution if you get stuck. The last thing to say is that your animals will thank you for it. In fact, you will thank yourself too. The differences you will see in your animals personality and your relationship really will warm the heart, and keep you on this path for life.
© Copyright Kathie Gregory 2015